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Article: A Theory of Momentary Distress Tolerance...

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

On December 9th, 2023 we held a book club on the following article:

Overview - Study Guide


Low distress tolerance, which means struggling to handle tough emotions, is linked to various mental health issues. This paper goes beyond previous studies that mainly looked at individual differences. Instead, it introduces a new idea called the "social-cognitive theory of momentary distress tolerance." 

"The vast majority of extant research on distress tolerance has focused on individual differences (Leyro et al., 2010; Zvolensky et al., 2010). Recognizing a longstanding distinction in personality research between viewing personality as attributes a person “has” (e.g., traits) versus processes that a person “does” (Cantor, 1990), the emphasis here is to consider distress tolerance as something people can choose to do. Both “having” and “doing” are important. A “doing” lens reflects recent findings that people vary in their abilities to tolerate distress over time and situation (Veilleux et. al., 2018; Veilleux, Skinner, et al., 2021; Veilleux & Skinner, 2020)."
"Throughout this paper, I intentionally do not differentiate among types of distress. Theterm distress is used to convey any kind of negative state, including the feelings of uncertainty,ambiguity, frustration, negative emotion, and physical pain or discomfort (Bardeen et al., 2013;Zvolensky et al., 2010). Distress could likewise be viewed as simply feeling “upset” or “bad,” or a general term covering a variety of specific emotions (sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.; Bernstein &Brantz, 2012)."

Breaking it Down:

The model helps us grasp how people act in the face of distress, focusing on whether they try to escape it or stay engaged with it. Being "engaged" means staying involved or experiencing distress. The model looks at individual and social-cognitive aspects and separates actions of tolerance and intolerance to emphasize different behaviors and willingness levels.

Engaging With Vs. Avoiding Distress

  • It separates actions where people stick with tough emotions (that's distress tolerance) from actions where they try to avoid or escape them (that's distress intolerance).

  • It emphasizes the importance of being willing to go through distress as a key part of handling it.

  • The model applies specifically to situations where distress is already present. You can only tolerate distress if you're experiencing it, whether from recalling past events, anticipating the future, or dealing with the present.

Key Player: Self-Efficacy:

  • Self-efficacy, or the belief in one's ability to handle tough feelings, is a crucial predictor in how well someone deals with distress.

  • It's influenced by factors like how intense the distress is and the person's momentary psychological resources (like hunger, tiredness, life stress, and social support).

Behavioral Choices:

  • Behavior, is influenced by a person's:

  • Distress tolerance self-efficacy (how capable they feel).

  • Willingness or unwillingness to continue experiencing distress, which involves their values, goals, and motives.

Factors Influencing Choices:

  • The model indicates factors likely to shift perceptions of self-efficacy and willingness, emphasizing contextual features that create variations within a person over time and across situations.

Connecting Choices to Individual Differences:

  • The model shows how repeated patterns of self-efficacy and engagement efforts build a person's view of themselves as capable of handling distress. On the flip side, patterns of low self-efficacy and avoidance actions shape a person's view of themselves as struggling with distress and prone to avoiding tough situations.

Why It Matters:

  • Individual differences are essentially mental representations of the self, shaped by prior experiences. This suggests that changing self-representations can happen by consistently altering momentary patterns, supporting interventions to improve distress tolerance.​

  • The paper discusses why this new approach can help tackle current challenges in studying distress tolerance.

  • It points out future directions for research and ways this understanding can be useful in real-life therapy.

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